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Francis I of France

François I, king of France, Louvre (Public Domain image from Wikipedia)
François I, king of France, Louvre (Public Domain image from Wikipedia)

Francis I (1494–1547), who ruled France from 1515 until his death, was an intense admirer of Italian art, and from early on in his reign he courted the best Italian painters and craftsmen. When he conquered Milan in 1515, he saw at first hand the work of Leonardo da Vinci. So impressed was he that he invited the great Italian artist, then sixty-four, to settle and work for him in France.

Having been given a home and an annual salary, Leonardo does not seem to have produced any paintings for Francis. He concentrated instead on engineering and architectural projects. A tantalising example of his genius is given in an account by Vasari of an automaton that he made to amuse the French king: a mechanical lion that reared up on its hind legs, roared and opened its breast to reveal a bunch of lilies.

Leonardo died in France in 1519, though not in the arms of the king, as one attractive legend has it. Later in his reign, Francis seems to have offered Titian similar terms to those on which he had employed Leonardo, but the artist was reluctant to leave his native Venice.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Francis' patronage is the Chateau of Fontainebleau, the site of a hunting lodge that was to become the chief French royal seat for the next 350 years. Cellini was responsible for several sculptures there, until he was compelled to leave France after bitter quarrels with Francis' mistress, the duchesse d'Etampes.

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